Can you explain Psalm 22:20-21?


by Shawn Brasseaux

How should we handle these two verses from Psalm 22? “[20] Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. [21] Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” Several enigmatic references make this passage a real challenge. How is a “sword” involved? What is “my darling?” Why is there a reference to a “dog?” Are not “unicorns” fiction?

As always, we look at the context to gather some basic clues. Psalm 22:1-19, of course, deals with Christ’s crucifixion. Verse 1 matches Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, with Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Verses 7-8 are fulfilled in Matthew 27:39-44, Mark 15:29-32, and Luke 23:35-37: His tormentors sit before His cross, staring and taunting Him. Verse 18 corresponds to Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, and John 19:24-25—they took His clothes and parted them amongst themselves.

Beginning with Psalm 22:22, and going to the end of the chapter, we see Christ’s resurrection and subsequent reign as King. “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.” This, of course, is quoting Messiah 10 centuries before He actually said it in Hebrews 2:12. If you look at Hebrews 2:5-18, you will read about Jesus ruling as King over Israel in the Millennium (1,000 years). Most importantly, He identifies with and fellowships with His Little Flock, the Jewish believing remnant that has come to Him by faith. “For the kingdom is the LORD’S: and he is the governor among the nations” (Psalm 22:28).

When writing Psalm 22 as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance, King David penned in accordance with the other Old Testament Prophets: “Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). Although they did not have as much understanding as we do with a completed Bible, they wrote and preached concerning Christ’s First Coming (“sufferings of Christ”—crucifixion) and His Second Coming (“glory that should follow”—kingdom reign). In case you have not detected it yet, Psalm 22 can be divided into these two units.

Psalm 22:20-21 sits between Jesus’ crucifixion to die and His resurrection to reign. They are actually His burial, His activity in the spirit world while His physical body is in the grave. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). We will take Psalm 22:20-21 phrase by phrase, line by line, and show you how to frame it in context. “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.” Simply put, it is the Lord Jesus Christ praying to (asking) His Heavenly Father to come to His rescue now that He is dead.


What is the “sword” in “deliver my soul from the sword?” Some would draw a parallel between this and the “sword” of Zechariah 13:7 and Matthew 26:31. However, Zechariah and Matthew are speaking of the Father’s sword attacking the Son’s soul: “Awake, O my sword, against the man that is my fellow [my equal, my associate]….” This is the Father talking about His judgment against the Son. If we consider all of Psalm 22:20-21, the “sword” has to be something else.

Acknowledging the parallelism of Psalm 22:20-21 is the best way to see the passage:

  • “Deliver my soul from the sword,” “my darling from the power of the dog,” and “Save me from the lion’s mouth” are three different ways of saying the same thing.
  • “My soul,” “my darling,” and “me” are all Jesus Christ.
  • “The sword,” “the power of the dog,” and “the lion’s mouth” are three distinctive references to Satan.


Why would Christ refer to His soul as His “darling?” The Hebrew is “yachiyd,” and our 1611 King James translators rendered it other ways too. For example, it is translated with respect to Isaac being Abraham’s “only” son (Genesis 22:2,12,16). It is “only child” concerning Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34). See also Proverbs 4:3 (“only beloved”), Jeremiah 6:26 (“only son”), Amos 8:10 (“only son”), and Zechariah 12:10 (“only son”). It is rendered “solitary” in Psalm 68:6, and “desolate” in Psalm 25:16. When Jesus called His soul His “darling,” He meant something that was dear to Him. It is that which is unique and irreplaceable. This idea is repeated in the parallelism of Psalm 35:17: “Lord, how long wilt thou look on? rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions.” (Check verse 11, and then compare that to Mark 14:57-58. Look at verse 19, and cross-reference that with John 15:24-25. Like Psalm 22, Psalm 35 is another Messianic passage that King David wrote. It foretells Jesus Christ’s earthly life and ministry.)


According to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, the Hebrew word for “dog” is “keleb,” from a root meaning “yelp” (barking) or “attack.” Dogs are “rabid” or violent—as in persecuting enemies. “In the East, troops of fierce half-famished dogs, without masters, are often wandering around the towns and villages.” This is supported by such verses as 1 Kings 14:11, 1 Kings 16:4, and 2 Kings 9:10. “Him that dieth of Jeroboam in the city shall the dogs eat; and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat: for the LORD hath spoken it.” “Him that dieth of Baasha in the city shall the dogs eat; and him that dieth of his in the fields shall the fowls of the air eat.” “And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the portion of Jezreel, and there shall be none to bury her. And he opened the door, and fled.” (Also see 1 Kings 21:19,23-24; 1 Kings 22:38; 2 Kings 9:36.)

The Jews regarded dogs not as pets like we do but rather unclean scavenger animals. “And ye shall be holy men unto me: neither shall ye eat any flesh that is torn of beasts in the field; ye shall cast it to the dogs (Exodus 22:31). Jeremiah 15:3: “And I will appoint over them four kinds, saith the LORD: the sword to slay, and the dogs to tear, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and destroy.” Hence, despised men are called “dogs” in Scripture (1 Samuel 24:14; 2 Samuel 3:8; 2 Samuel 9:8; 2 Samuel 16:9; 2 Kings 8:13).

When commissioning His Apostles and other believers, Jesus warned of the persecution they would face because they were fighting against Satan working in Israel. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15). “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). “Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3). “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly” (Proverbs 26:11; cf. 2 Peter 2:1-22, especially verse 22). These “wolves” are not actual animals, but rather ferocious, unbelieving men who teach lies in the name of religion. Like physical dogs, they attack opposition with utter brutality.

The Apostle Paul thus advised: “[28] Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. [29] For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. [30] Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). Also, Philippians 3:2: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.”

Psalm 22:16 says concerning Christ watching the unbelievers coming before His cross and making fun of Him: “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.” They are vicious and animalistic in their treatment of Him! Satan is the cruelest and fiercest of creatures, which is why he is rightly called a “dog” in Psalm 22:20.


As for “unicorns,” that requires special treatment, so please see our related “mythological animals” study linked at the end of this article. Keeping the notion in context, it must apply to the spirit world in which Christ was during the three days and three nights He was physically dead.


The parallelism of Psalm 22:20-21 is the best method of grasping the passage:

  • “Deliver my soul from the sword,” “my darling from the power of the dog,” and “Save me from the lion’s mouth” are three different ways of saying the same thing. They refer to Jesus praying to the Father to rescue Him from physical death—that is, resurrect Him (cf. Psalm 16:8-11 and Acts 2:22-36). Satan is trying to keep Him dead, but He will burst forth in physical life most triumphantly (Hebrews 2:12-15; Revelation 1:17-18)!
  • “My soul,” “my darling,” and “me” are all Jesus Christ personally. “Darling” underscores the uniqueness and irreplaceability of His soul.
  • “The sword,” “the power of the dog,” and “the lion’s mouth” are three distinctive references to Satan and his evil deeds that interfere with God’s work. The Devil is also likened unto a lion in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:….” Also, notice Paul’s fight with Satan as he conducted his apostolic ministry. Second Timothy 4:17: “Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.”

Also see:
» What about the “mythological” animals in Scripture?
» Where was Jesus during the three days between His death and resurrection?
» Can you explain 1 Peter 3:18-21?